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Immigration likely to follow economy

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: This week, we’ve been looking to the future with the Marketplace series the “Next American Dream.”

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. But who will continue to seek opportunity here? Historically, more people have come from Latin America to this country. But that could be changing with stricter border enforcement and fewer jobs.

Princeton sociology professor Douglas Massey joins us this morning and says there are consequences to all this. First off Professor Massey, good morning. What has immigration from Latin America meant to the U.S. economy over the years?

DOUGLAS MASSEY: Well, it’s been a major source of low-wage labor in the United States. It has played a leading role in sustaining the economic boom of the 1990s. As the boom of the 1990s developed, we hit record levels of low unemployment rates that economists said before couldn’t be achieved without causing inflation. And yet, by the late 1990s we had rates of 4 percent or so. And we would have reached bottlenecks with labor shortages had it not been for immigration and immigrants coming into the country.

CHIOTAKIS: But you don’t think that, if there is a shortage of jobs, that people will say that more Americans and not immigrants will say, “OK, well, I’m getting a little desperate here. I don’t mind changing the bedpans or going out and picking tomatoes or something like that.”

MASSEY: Well, in the short term that may be true. But in the longer term I think we’ll return to a situation where those jobs will either be filled by immigrants, or they will disappear or move overseas. Every developed country has now become a country of immigration. And it’s built into the economic structure of post-industrial societies, and it’s built into the demography of post-industrial societies.

CHIOTAKIS: Let’s talk a little bit about the fallout that we’re dealing with right now, and the fact that the economy is in its worst shape than it has been in 70 years in many cases. How does immigration affect that? Where do we see immigration going, and how does it play into sort of reviving the economy of today and from now on?

MASSEY: Well, in the short term, immigration is part and parcel of the dynamics of the economy. And so when the economy goes sour, immigration slows down. And that’s exactly what we’re observing. And if the economic slump continues, you’ll see that trend continue. When the economy revives and jobs are created, you’ll see a response in our immigration flows. The key for us is to figure out ways to manage this and handle these flows legally in ways that protect American workers and protect the rights of the immigrants themselves.

CHIOTAKIS: Professor Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton, specializes in immigration. We thank you for joining us today.

MASSEY: Thank you.

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